EU's Michel phones Russia's Putin to demand Navalny's release

European Council President Charles Michel

A senior European Union official told Russian President Vladimir Putin by telephone on Friday to release opposition politician Alexei Navalny and demanded an investigation into the Kremlin critic’s poisoning last August.

Navalny was detained in Russia on Sunday after flying home from Germany for the first time since being poisoned with what tests conducted at a German military laboratory showed was a military-grade nerve agent.

“In my call with President Putin today, I reiterated (that the) EU is united in its condemnation of Alexei Navalny’s detention and calls for his immediate release,” European Council President Charles Michel, who chairs EU summits, wrote on Twitter. “Russia must urgently proceed with full and transparent investigation into the assassination attempt on him.”

Navalny says Putin was behind his poisoning last August, a version of events that the Kremlin rejects. The Kremlin says it has seen no evidence that Navalny was poisoned.

“The president of the European Council informed President Putin of the grave concern in the EU and its member states over recent developments,” Michel’s office said in an official EU statement, referring to Navalny.

EU foreign ministers are expected to debate more economic sanctions on Russian individuals on Monday in Brussels. EU lawmakers passed a resolution on Thursday calling for the bloc to stop the completion of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, which will take Russian natural gas to Europe, in response to Navalny’s arrest.

Before he returned to Russia, opposition politician Alexei Navalny and his supporters had anticipated he would be arrested and planned to force the Kremlin to release him by staging repeated protests, a close ally has said.

Navalny, President Vladimir Putin’s most prominent critic, was detained on Sunday after flying home for the first time since being poisoned with what the West says was a military-grade nerve agent that Navalny says was applied to his underpants by state security agents. The 44-year-old lawyer, now in a notorious Moscow prison pending the outcome of four legal matters he says are all trumped up, accuses Putin of ordering his attempted murder.

Putin has dismissed that, alleging Navalny is part of a US-backed dirty tricks campaign to discredit him.

Navalny’s allies plan nationwide protests on Saturday to try to force the Kremlin to order his release, a high-stakes test of his support in the depths of winter during a pandemic.

Leonid Volkov, a close Navalny ally, told Reuters that the opposition plan also involves releasing video investigations into Putin and his allies, such as one on Tuesday about an opulent palace they alleged belonged to Putin, which the Kremlin denied. It has been watched 53 million times online.

“We know the Kremlin fears mass demonstrations,” Volkov said. “We know the Kremlin has never failed in recent years to bend one way or the other if the demonstrations were powerful and strong enough.”

The Kremlin said that nationwide protests planned for Saturday to call for the release of jailed Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny were illegal and were being promoted by people it called provocateurs.

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